El Salvador,

María Eugenia Aguilar helps young Salvadoran people apply native knowledge and skills to modern business, instilling pride in indigenous culture and preserving community ties.

This profile below was prepared when María Eugenia Aguilar Castro was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.
María Eugenia Aguilar impulsa al pueblo salvadoreño a aplicar su conocimiento nativo en negocios modernos para inculcar orgullo de la cultura indígena y conservar los lazos de la comunidad.  Su trabajo genera comunidades sostenibles que consolidan su identidad y definen un desarrollo basado en sus valores y actitudes propios. 


María Eugenia Aguilar helps young Salvadoran people apply native knowledge and skills to modern business, instilling pride in indigenous culture and preserving community ties.


María Eugenia is helping El Salvador's native people break the cycle of poverty and maintain their cultural roots. By encouraging community organizing, enabling future business entrepreneurs, and actively pursuing educational improvements, María Eugenia is changing the way Central America searches for cultural preservation. In the past, the sales of handicrafts and art have generated considerable revenue for indigenous communities. However, this economic development is often achieved at the expense of native knowledge and traditional practices. Because María Eugenia asserts that this sort of commerce is detrimental to the cultural identities of young Salvadorans, she has developed a model that uses traditional wisdom and beliefs along with local technical knowledge to address new, far-reaching problems. By articulating the importance of source expertise like language, specialized ability, and environmental intimacy in the development of business strategies, María Eugenia places local people in a position of authority. She has designed a series of programs that help minority, often scattered, indigenous groups earn money, systematically conserve native expertise, and contribute to the mainstream without shedding their cultural identities. María Eugenia's work is expanding in El Salvador and has potential to reach indigenous people all over the world.


According to the World Health Organization, poverty in El Salvador is concentrated in rural and minority populations. Lacking potable water, electricity, and modern healthcare only 1 percent of indigenous people can fulfill their basic needs. A March 2000 Earth Council Indigenous Peoples Programme National Report (Integrated Planning and Management of Land Resources in El Salvador) states that few indigenous children go to school, most work, and that the country's education system does not accommodate these children's culture and needs in the curriculum. Simply stated, without a proper education, young people cannot find good jobs and thus remain poor. Moreover, young people who do stay in school tend to emigrate in search of jobs. There are about a half million Salvadorans currently living in the United States and a half million more living in Mexico, Canada, and Europe. These numbers are particularly alarming given El Salvador's population of only six million people.

Many of El Salvador's problems originate in its history of violence and discrimination against native peoples. Since the Spanish conquest, there have been two acknowledged massacres of indigenous peoples in El Salvador, in 1833 and 1932. In 1932 the government approved the death penalty for wearing native dress or speaking native language. The government expropriated land, leaving many indigenous people without homes or a means of survival other than hiding. The cultural assault continues today as indigenous school students learn to be ashamed of their origins and are not taught to recognize the strengths of their culture, such as respect for the environment and community. Despite their mainstream achievements, many successful Salvadoran business people and professors hide their identities because they fear the stereotype of American Indians as ignorant, stupid, drunk, and lazy. At this point, most Salvadorans honestly believe that no real indigenous people remain in the country. However, the census estimates that nonmestizo American Indians account for 7 to 10 percent of the national population.


In order to invigorate Salvadorans' sense of identity and place within mainstream society, María Eugenia's program increases value in indigenous cultures from the roots up. By emphasizing the true worth of traditional knowledge in the modern context, the project aims to break from the trend toward selling customary objects as retail goods and create new opportunities for young people. María Eugenia's organization, the Salvadoran Institute for Indigenous Ancestral Resurgence, aims to revitalize rural communities, improve education, generate income, and gain mainstream acknowledgment for indigenous practices so that youngsters have hope of finding careers within their communities and so raise esteem and social power for their people. Her organization's strategy has three components: community organizing allows people to recognize the value of native wisdom; business entrepreneurship combines traditional knowledge with 21st century skills; and improved education enables young people to understand their place in society better and become engaged in citizenship.

Organizing begins with a diagnostic investigation of knowledge found in an indigenous community, including for example, traditional arts (ceramics, handicrafts, carvings, textiles, clothing, dyes), medicine, farming, building techniques, education, community history, and language. Village elders are the best sources of such skills that have largely fallen into disuse. María Eugenia conducts extensive interviews and studies local practices, documenting not only the type of techniques used, but also the knowledge dedicated to such customs. Studies last a year or more. Over the course of her investigation, María Eugenia also holds workshops bringing together village elders and youth leaders. The elders recount El Salvador's history and the history of its people from their own perspective. This oral history greatly interests young people who begin to see their lives in a new context. Having piqued interest, and by this point having become something of an expert on local culture, María Eugenia suggests ways for young people to explore their culture.

Although cultural discovery represents a huge step in the right direction, María Eugenia knows that these explorations must lead to better education and good jobs and, therefore, places equal emphasis on community organizing and business development. She helps villages advance from the handicraft stage to the textile stage of production, applying traditional skill to more modern products and wider markets. Market study allows these producers to understand their intended consumer and competitors so that they may diversify styles and designs while capitalizing on traditional methods. They also are studying how to adapt native medicines and dyes to current markets. As a result, a Canadian university is interested in studying and employing their natural dye-making process.

Because María Eugenia concentrates on traditional production methods rather than the mass production of a traditional-style good, the existing community enterprises require little modification to adopt a business plan and tap into the mainstream local and international market. She already has plans to tap into the network of overseas Salvadorans to go into business with large foreign retailers, such as Sears in the United States. She is already helping local Salvadorans market their products through one European retailer and is selling dyes to Tanzania. To facilitate this and other dimensions of the commercial initiative, María Eugenia is developing an economic feasibility study of the communities in which she works, evaluating their production capacity and needs in areas such as crafts, agricultural products, prepared foods, and art.

In addition to creating new opportunities for young people to use their traditional skills in the business world, the combination of occupational success and native technique awakens their interest in education. María Eugenia often tutors village students in language and math and is training students in business management. Outside, she secures full scholarships for students who graduate from her program to pursue university education. The connection between local achievement and broader opportunity compels young people to return to their villages and lead community development. While she is involved with every aspect of the organization, she often breeds responsibility among the youth in a particular community by charging them with liaison responsibilities, requiring formal reports, fiscal data, and project proposals.

María Eugenia both promotes and embodies her ideas through the Nahuat language broadcasts of the local radio station she recently founded. The station's programs promote minority culture and topics of local interest, as it features commercial sponsorship from the mainstream. While advertisements are translated and aired in Nahuat, American Indian staff work alongside and are trained by nonindigenous Salvadoran staff eager to take part in an exchange of technical and topical expertise. The radio station dedicates much of its airtime to public service and provides a platform for native experts and mainstream academics to discuss subjects of mutual interest like the environment and culture.

María Eugenia's innovative approach to cultural preservation and economic development has been recognized both nationally and internationally. She is a member of the advisory council of the prestigious Indigenous Organizations of Central America network and has participated in various conferences and other events around the world. María Eugenia has also undertaken studies of Israel and India, countries that have also successfully integrated ancient ways into current culture. So far, she has worked with communities in four areas of El Salvador: Santiago Texacuangos, Cuisnahaut, Nueva Granada Usulutan, and Concepción Quezaltepeque. María Eugenia aspires to expand her regional and cultural scope to include all of El Salvador and other Central American countries. With the proper support, her methods could effectively be applied in developing communities around the world.


María Eugenia was born in the Guatemalan jungle to Salvadoran immigrants. When she was 5, her family returned to El Salvador and lived for the first time in a city. Her first days in public school were terrifying and overwhelming, as she did not understand the people or their individualistic, competitive culture. Her family later moved back to Guatemala, and by age 13, Maria was already spending half her day doing social work with indigenous people. She finally returned to El Salvador as a teenager to finish school and start a family.

María Eugenia is also a practicing native healer. She first established a relationship with United States universities when she received financial support to organize a conference in El Salvador for native healers from several American countries. She has built on this relationship and her experience as a traditional healer to help incorporate native expertise into a university biology program, one now directed by both a biology professor and a native expert on forest medicine. María Eugenia was also selected by the Global Organization of Native Healers to represent their concerns at the United Nations where she gave a presentation in early 2001.

Over the years, María Eugenia has continued to work with indigenous people through various government and nonprofit institutions. She founded the Salvadoran Institute for Indigenous Ancestral Resurgence about 15 years ago and began working in radio shortly thereafter. She worked on three radio programs with Radio Ishcanal in Nueva Granada, El Salvador, on which she started to identify herself as an American Indian. When well-known Salvadorans began calling her radio shows to acknowledge publicly, for the first time that they too were indigenous people who had hidden their identity, María Eugenia recognized the need to promote the value and positive image of these oppressed people. She still sits on the advisory council of the Association of Radio and Participatory Programs of El Salvador.